Few writers can thrive in isolation. Sooner or later, we all need a little boost in our writing, some external structure to help us make the jump to the next level. And a writing workshop can be a great way to do that. When I use the term “writing workshop” I’m talking about a group setting (usually at least three and usually no more than twelve writers) where you meet regularly, read each other’s work and offer suggestions or critique.
You can certainly find writing workshops in MFA’s-in fact, the workshop is often the central component of most programs–or in other writing schools as well. But you can also reap the benefits of a workshop without the classroom setting. This article will help you figure out if a you need a workshop (not all writers do, at least not all the time) and if a workshop is right for you. In a few days, we’ll do a follow-up article that will talk about places you can go to find workshops or meet other writers.
This article was inspired by one of the excellent questions asked at the Q&A Workshop. It was such a great question that I wanted to make sure everyone in the DIY MFA community got a chance to hear the answer.
A Quick Walk Down Memory Lane
In January 2007, I made an official decision that I was going to be a writer. I started calling myself a writer. Inspired by Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, I forced myself to write 2000 words every day, even if I had no specific project going on and had no idea what to write. (Those were some loooooong days.)
When I ran into friends and acquaintances, I even started answer the question “So… what are you up to these days?” by saying “I’m writing a book.” At which point they would ask what the book was about, I would reply that “my characters haven’t told me that yet” and then they’d back away slowly and the conversation would devolve from there.
After about three months of painful, aimless writing, I realized I needed some direction so I signed up to take a writing class not far from my house. That class changed my writing career in so many ways. It gave me deadlines so that I had to focus on completing cohesive stories, not just writing aimlessly as I had been before. I learned important techniques, which helped me craft my stories much more efficiently now that I understood how the “rules” worked. Finally, I met other writers living in the city and–OMG!–made writer friends. And when the class was over, a few of us decided to continue meeting as a writing workshop.
Of the original members, half have since left the workshop, but many other amazing writers have joined and there’s still a couple of us from that very first cohort. The writers in this workshop are among my most trusted readers. They are the first Beta testers for DIY MFA materials and I consider them kindred spirits and good friends. And this all happened because of that one class I took five years ago.
How To Tell When You Need a Writing Workshop
- You need structure. If you have to bring some piece of writing to your group on a certain day, that deadline will make sure you put your backside in the chair and get to work. Nothing like last minute panic to make writers quit procrastinating and start writing.
- You need support. When you get to the point of submitting your work–whether it’s short stories to literary magazines or query letters to agents–it’s SO important to have a group of writer friends on your side. Keep in mind that while it’s healthy to lean on your writing workshop for support (especially when facing rejections), a true writing workshop is not group therapy for writers. The best support a workshop can offer is to encourage you to keep writing, to keep doing the work.
- You need motivation. In our workshop for a long we had a teaching component. This meant that aside from critiquing one another’s work we also took a half hour or so to do a writing exercise or to practice a particular technique. This made sure that even if any writers were in a slump and hadn’t written since the last meeting, they could count on a short writing sprint during the meeting to help them “get back on the horse” as it were.
- You need feedback and critique. Most writers tend to focus most on this aspect of the writing workshop, and it is very important especially as writers are starting out. At some point, however, you have to become your own best critic and many times writers will depend on the group at the expense of developing their own editor’s eye. Still there is a lot of value to group critiques, because you will learn to look at someone’s work with an eye toward craft and technique. When you identify and articulate what doesn’t work in someone else’s work, you will also gain a new perspective on your own.
A workshop is only one of the many options available to writers in terms of getting feedback. For a full menu, check out this article: What Kind of Feedback is Right for You?
Should You Join a Workshop?
Here are a few things to consider before joining a workshop.
- Do you have the time? Before you dive headfirst into a writing workshop, you need to consider if you have the time to do it and whether you’re willing to commit to it. Workshops can be a lot of work. Depending on how often a group meets and how many people submit work each time, you could be reading anywhere from 10-40 pages of writing every week. Consider the time commitment for the group, and make sure to add in reading time, meeting time and commutes to and from.
- Does it fit with where you are on your journey? If you’re just starting out, it can be intimidating to join a group that’s been together for a long time or a group where most members are already published. Similarly, if you’re already well along on your journey, a group that’s just starting out might not be the best fit. Also, you may not be in a place in terms of your writing where a writing group is necessary. For instance, I’ve actually taken a hiatus from my beloved group because DIY MFA writing has taken over and I’ve had to put my fiction on the back burner. Now I turn to that group as my Beta readers, sending them semi-final versions of DIY MFA materials but much less often.
- Do you need a genre-focused workshop or something more general? Like some writers, you might prefer to get feedback from writers working in the same genre as you because they’ll “get” what you’re doing. I happen to prefer getting feedback from a more diverse group because I think there’s a lot I can learn from writers who specialize in other areas of writing than me. It’s a personal choice but definitely something to consider when you’re thinking of forming or joining a group.
Thank you for being part of the DIY MFA community!
While we’re talking about community, I wanted to add something on a more personal note. I’m so glad you’re here. Whether you’ve just discovered DIY MFA or you’ve been following along from our humble beginnings, I want you to know that I couldn’t do this without you. Seriously. Without you, DIY MFA would just be one more bit of noise in an otherwise cluttered ether, but knowing that you’re out there gives this website meaning and purpose.
To all of you who attended the recent DIY MFA online workshop, you ROCK! An especially HUGE thank you to those who asked questions during the Q&A or emailed me those questions afterwards. I was so inspired that I’ve decided to use many of those questions as inspiration for future articles, not unlike this article right here.
Finally, I know I say this a lot but I can’t say it enough: I am so grateful and lucky to have such wonderful writers like you in my corner. Write on!